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A Fire on the Cross
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Cover Story

A Fire on the Cross

by Jan Thorpe & Thomas G. Whittle

he Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Tigrett, Tennessee, burned to the ground on May 14, 1996. Investigators informed the pastor, the Reverend Paul Lusby, that they would let him know “within a week or two” how the church caught fire.

But months later, Pastor Lusby and his parishioners still do not know what happened. Federal investigators have refused to tell them anything.

Incredibly, the pastor and 20 others, all African-American, were randomly subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury on July 15. They showed up and were questioned. And they have been told nothing since. One insider likened the service of the subpoenas to a “duck shoot” and said the pastor has been targeted by federal agents.

Among those served was an 81-year-old elder of the church who chairs the church’s deacons. Even though suffering from a heart condition, diabetes and other health problems, he was forced to travel nearly 100 miles to appear before the grand jury, a grueling experience under the best of circumstances.

Pastor Lusby believes that he and his congregation have been kept in the dark about the investigation by officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF)—the agency which is responsible for federal arson investigations—and have instead, unjustly and improperly, become the target of the probe.

Despite the fact that all of those convicted so far in the attacks on Southern churches have been white—and a striking number of them are also members of the Ku Klux Klan or other hate groups—it appears that the ATF is determined to pin the burning of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on the congregation itself.

Racial Character of the Violence

More than 150 Southern black churches have burned since 1990, many of them utterly destroyed and at least 100 of them linked to racism. Despite the banner headlines and the overall notoriety of these incidents, the true nature of the campaign of violence and what underlies it remains veiled in darkness.

Few Americans know, for example, that at least 34 white suspects have been arrested in connection with the crimes, with 26 convicted. No blacks have been convicted. These criminals have been apprehended and brought to justice due almost exclusively to local—not federal—law enforcement efforts, though hundreds of federal officers are investigating. Most of the crimes remain unsolved, including firebombings which the ATF has been investigating for years with no visible results.

Despite overwhelming evidence establishing the racial character of the plague of violence, federal spokesmen have made deliberate misrepresentations, claiming that race has not been a factor in the bombings, 1995, following a 10-year plague of racist vandalism and destruction which some believe was aimed at pressuring the church to move from its prime spot. and that no apparent pattern or motive for the widespread destruction exists.

Hatred Unmasked

Government officials have endeavored to dismiss the idea of a conspiracy and to color the burnings as the work of “copycats” and kooks, with racism an incidental factor figuring in perhaps a few of the “incidents.”

“The people who have been apprehended so far are mutts,” an ATF spokesman said. “They have no developed ideology and there’s no evidence they are hooked up to any grand conspiracy.”

Freedom has found just the opposite. Those propounding the concept of “no pattern” or “no racism” to attacks upon black churches ignore such evidence as the following

  • Less than a month before the June 1995 fire that destroyed the Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, South Carolina, a Ku Klux Klan poster was tacked to the church’s door. The poster depicted a hooded Klansman and announced the time and place of an upcoming Klan rally. Another KKK poster appeared across the street from the church. Timothy Welch, convicted of setting the fire, carried a card certifying he was a KKK member. Fellow arsonist Gary Cox reportedly attended Klan rallies with him.

  • After the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, burned in June 1995, a hearing was held during which those charged with the crime acknowledged involvement with the KKK. Following the hearing, “We are going to get you, n – – r” was just one of the threats received by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Terrance G. Mackey, Sr.

  • In March 1995, the interior of the Hammond Grove Baptist Church in Aiken, South Carolina, was vandalized to the tune of $20,000 in damages. Graffiti scrawled by the vandals included the words “Kill N – – rs” and a noose with the word “N – – r.”

  • The 26 individuals thus far convicted of assaults against Southern churches since 1990 include Ernest Pierce, state leader of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Kentucky, as well as other members of the KKK and various extremist groups. Pierce was among those implicated in the burning of the Barren River Baptist Church in Bowling Green in December 1991.


While mainstream news media accounts often dwell on the remote locations of some churches—beside little-used country roads with few people living nearby—many of the targeted structures actually sit on prime real estate. Perhaps in some cases, an attempted land-grab is prompting the destruction. Numerous churches have been on the same site for many decades, or even a century or more, and communities have grown around them. Church cemeteries frequently lie nearby, adding to the resolve of church members not to sell or move.

Church leaders and members have repeatedly expressed the belief that arson and other assaults constitute deliberate attempts to frighten the churches into moving off the land and selling off their heritage.

The Falling Meadows Baptist Church in West Point, Mississippi, for example, burned on March 10, 1996. The church sits on choice land, on a major highway across from a public school. Sources reported that church leaders received frequent offers to buy the land; a similar proposition came shortly after the burning.

St. John’s Baptist Church in Dixiana, South Carolina, situated on a state road and surrounded by growing development, burned on August 15

Against the Trend

The explosion of black church burnings bucks the national trend. Arson attacks against all churches and related properties (white owned, black owned or otherwise) dropped steadily from 1,420 in 1980 to 520 in 1994, according to statistics provided by the National Fire Protection Association.

But during the 1990s, arson attacks on black churches have risen steeply. Notably, two attacks occurred against black churches in January 1990—evidently to denigrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Arsons that year, as determined by a USA Today research team, totaled 13, although statistics were not available from all southern states. 52 more churches burned between 1991 and 1993. While congregations involved were devastated, the nation by and large failed to notice.

The conflagrations surged to 25 in 1994, climbing to 27 in 1995 and then to 40 in the first six months of 1996—an epidemic of one or more attacks per week.

USA Today noted two zones where arson attacks have been heaviest since January 1995, one that includes western Tennessee and northern parts of Mississippi and Alabama, the other concentrated along Interstate 95 in South Carolina and North Carolina.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been involved in the investigation of the burnings for years—such arsons are its responsibility to solve. Although news accounts indicate 250 ATF and FBI agents are working on the matter, an informed source told Freedom the actual number of federal personnel is closer to 750.

The question is, with all this manpower, why don’t we know more? Why haven’t all of the individuals responsible been brought to justice? And, more importantly, why haven’t the burnings stopped?

A Fire on the Cross continued...
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